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Much More Than a Struggle Over a Brand of Rum

Photo by Richard Smallbone | CC BY 2.0

The arguments that have been taking place for years between the French corporation Pernod Ricard and the U.S.-based Bacardi company since shortly after the triumph of the revolution in Cuba are rooted in political realities that far outstrip the apparent battle for the Bacardi and Havana Club rum brands that have lasted for more than half a century.

The controversy derives from the fact that the Cuban popular victory of 1959, which led to the revolution in power on the island, was followed by, among other popular demands, the inescapable commitments made by the rebels to the people. These included agrarian reform, the literacy campaign, the urban reform, the nationalization of public energy, water, and communications services, and the large industries. The government of the revolution set out to agree mutually satisfactory compensatory solutions with those affected and succeeded in almost all cases.

The then-owners of the Bacardi rum company skillfully managed to register the firm in Bermuda and prepared to resist nationalization. They took the documents and individuals of some of the company’s directors from Cuba. But they were unable to extract the talent and the century-old expertise and inventiveness of the humble teachers and other workers who have made the product of their efforts famous. Neither do the characteristics of water, climate, and other irreplaceable elements.

Then there followed an extensive period of legal disputes in which shipments of the original Bacardi rum from Cuba were systematically confiscated for claims that the counterfeiters were making progress, often through bribes and always supported by pressure from Washington.

Finally, the Court in The Hague ruled that the Bacardi firm should retain the right to the Bacardi brand and the bat symbol, but did not admit that the origin of the product was identified as having been made in Cuba since the previous trade name was ‘Bacardi de Cuba’.

Faced with this situation, the real Cuban producers invited the prestigious French liquor company, Pernod Ricard, to form an association to produce in Cuba and distribute its proven rum throughout the world under the name Havana Club. It’s trademark was registered until 1964 in the United States Patent Office by its previous owner, José Arrechabala, who, following the nationalization of its factory, had renounced the trademark and declined to renew it.

The Arechabala family had founded the distillery in the city of Cárdenas in 1878, and in 1934 sold rum under the name Havana Club in the United States, apparently in contravention of the “prohibition” or “dry law” laws then in force there.

With the acquisition of the “Havana Club” brand by the Pernod Ricard/Cuba Ron consortium and the support of an intensive advertising campaign, sales grew significantly in more than 100 countries. Due to the laws of the imperialist blockade of Cuba, the United States remained the only country in the world where Cuban rum could not be sold.

Alarmed by this situation, the Bacardi organization, which in its relationship with Cuba has always been more oriented towards political reprisals than business, opted to prolong the legal battle by focusing on the use of the Havana Club trademark. To that end, Bacardi tried to present itself as a legitimate purchaser of the rights to the Arechabala family’s trademark. “After the Cuban regime confiscated the Arechabala brand without mercy and by force, Ramón Arechabala personally transcribed the recipe and gave it to Bacardi as an agreement between the two families, both exiled from their homeland,” was his desperate and foolish argument.

In 1999, using its political ties in Washington, Bacardi managed to get Congress to approve the so-called Section 211, which allowed it to market under the brand name “Havana Club” in the USA. This ad hoc legislation was condemned by the World Trade Organisation but has allowed Bacardi to sell a fake ‘Havana Club’ made in Puerto Rico in the United States.

The book “Ron Bacardi: The Hidden War” and the documentary “The Secret of the Bat” show the relationship of the Bacardi company with the ultra-right-wing and Cuban-American mafia in Miami. They also reveal the participation of its team of lawyers in the drafting of the Helms-Burton Act. This law, in 1996, codified all the provisions that had formed the economic blockade of Cuba since 1959 into a single legal instrument so that not even a new US President could abrogate the genocidal siege without the approval of Congress (as happened to Barack Obama).

A CubaNews translation by Walter Lippmann.

 

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Manuel E. Yepe is a lawyer, economist and journalist. He is a professor at the Higher Institute of International Relations in Havana.

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